The most debated topic when it comes to spirituality is renunciation. No wonder, there are many misconceptions about it.
Renunciation, the way it is understood by most people, is the act of leaving home and family life in order to pursue the spiritual life – to live the life of a wandering hermit in search of the ultimate truth. The central question is whether it is necessary to renounce worldly life in order to achieve enlightenment.
Before we enter the debate on the pros and cons of renunciation, we must understand some basics about enlightenment. Enlightenment is the same for all human beings. In fact self-realization is about discovering your true self, beyond the illusory person that you think you are. So the question is about the approach – whether leaving family is going to help you to achieve that.
Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on the situation. We know that we have to be born in a family setting. No human being is born without a mother and a father and if he has grown up to get enlightened, then we can be sure, he or she has spent significant time in the care of the family and society. If there was no family, no society, then there would be no enlightened individuals also.
Society at times or rather at all times is a place full of chaos, where every individual is seeking his self-centered happiness and does not hesitate to harm others and cheat others to get what he wants. Children are prepared through education to get ready to enter the society and sustain its existence. Customs of marriage and rituals of coming of age are all significant for the sustenance of the society.
One cannot force anyone to exit the society, except as an outcast for breaking some of the agreements of the society. So by default, everyone is condemned to live in the society despite its cruelties. All one can do is to further one’s own goals, hoping one gets through life without serious incidents. The whole desire for enlightenment has no place in this structure. Society does not encourage the seeking for truth. Its existence depends on the illusion of progress and civilization.
A PRACTICAL SOLUTION
When an individual who perceives these illusions promoted by the society, he tries to understand what is going on. He comes across other individuals who talk of a true life, self-realization, etc and he is intrigued. He tries to find answers in the society but quickly comes to the conclusion that nobody knows anything about it.
His mind is boiling with the question and he is not finding any outlet because he has to fulfill the responsibilities of his life. He cannot focus on anything unless he gets an answer and therefore needs time and space to go within to explore. However, life has no mercy. It is unrelenting in its demands for survival and sustenance of the family and societal institutions.
Therefore, the only practical way out for a person is to renounce the family and go off to live alone in search of the truth. This has been happening in India throughout history. All those who had this inner calling have promptly renounced their worldly life and went into the forest. Whether they were successful in their search or not is another question.
The search for one’s true self requires meditation for long periods so if you are sitting and doing nothing while at home, other people will think you are lazy and a shirker. They do not appreciate the inner calling of the person. On the other hand, if you are in the forest, away from the home life, then there is no one to disturb you in your meditation. You have voluntarily retired from all responsibilities so you can focus singlemindedly on your goal.
The Buddha used to say that going from the home to the homeless life was the fastest way to self-realization. Hundreds and thousands of young men left their homes to join the Buddha’s Sangha. Even today, many people leave their homes and join a spiritual order, whether Buddhism or Christianity or Hinduism.
Point to note is that if a person is leaving home just to avoid the arduous responsibilities, then that is not the right renunciation. It is right renunciation only when the individual’s intention is to realize his true self. Only then is the renunciation a practical choice because there is no other way to live in the society and seek the higher reality.
So the question naturally arises. Is enlightenment impossible without this renunciation of worldly life? It is not impossible. There have been many cases of family people getting enlightened by hearing the teachings of masters.
In fact Gurdjieff actively promoted the fourth way, a way of self-realization while living the ordinary life. He was of the opinion that the situation one finds oneself in in one’s life is the most appropriate situation to start the struggle against sleep in order to awaken.
The truth about awakening is one of conditions. If a man is living in conditions that are conducive to enlightenment, then it will happen whether he is living at home or in the forest. And if the conditions are not suitable, then awakening will give him a slip even if he has renounced worldly life.
THE MIDDLE WAY
So is there a middle way between renouncing and not renouncing? Yes, definitely there is a way for the intelligent person who knows the conditions to be created. These conditions include first and foremost unobstructed time and space for meditation. If a man is able to organize this time wherein he is able to devote time to meditation with the sincere aim of awakening, then he will be in a much better position than a man who has renounced the world and is living troubled with the thought of where to get his next meal in the forest.
True renunciation is the renunciation of the idea of ‘I’. This can be done anywhere. The only problem of living in the society is that others remind you of being you all too often for you to practice the inner renunciation of ‘I’. However, for a person who is able to maintain self-awareness in all his worldly interactions, he will not be troubled. Within his mind, he has renounced while he is still performing ‘self’-less actions in the world outside.
If at some time, the awakened person wants to really change his way of life and live away from society, then the outer renunciation is only a formality. True renunciation has already happened when the person stopped identifying himself with his body and mind.
Therefore, it can be said that renunciation is the last obvious step rather than the first courageous step.